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Associate Professor of French Bob Hudson Discusses Marguerite de Navarre Heptan as Literature of Isolation

As we all spend time in isolation, Associate Professor of French Bob Hudson reflects on how the Heptaméron provides us with a model for reflecting upon and challenging ideologies and social conventions during this period of quarantine.

Hi, I’m Bob Hudson from the Department of French & Italian, and I’ve been invited to present on Marguerite de Navarre’s collection of seventy-two short tales, the Heptaméron (1559), as an example of literature of isolation.

Modeled on Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Heptaméron brings together ten French nobles at an abbey in the Pyrenees who decide to tell tales as they wait for a bridge, which has been washed out in a flood, to be repaired.

As Queen of Navarre, a small kingdom situated between northeastern Spain and southwestern France along both sides of the Pyrenees, Marguerite was an extremely important woman in the Renaissance. The older sister of François I of France, the “King of the Renaissance,” Marguerite had received a royal education alongside her brother. She was versant in seven different languages and exceptionally well read in the classics and contemporary literature.

What’s more, she was a central figure in the French Reformation. Unlike Martin Luther, Marguerite was not seeking a total upheaval of the Church, but rather sought more Erasmian reforms. Beyond religion, Marguerite sought many reforms in French society, in terms of the status of women and those of the subservient classes within the medieval hierarchy of feudalism, elements of which would emerge from the text’s polyphony.

Framing her narrative with five men and five women makes the stories pretty interesting. Because you have five of each, you have this sort of parity that’s happening there. All of them are based on real-life characters from her entourage telling true stories—that’s her big stipulation: that the tales be true (and most of them have been corroborated)—from her day; these characters would include herself, her mother, and her husband.

Marguerite was able to challenge many of the preconceptions of her day with the dominant voice telling each tale and then a more rationally–based, even democratic, consensus emerging from the ensuing discussion between the devisants.

If we have the Heptaméron today, it’s because we’re lucky. It was never intended for wide, public consumption. A “Book of Ladies,” it was largely a feminist text that would have been circulated in manuscript form alongside her noble contemporaries and was only collected and published posthumously, ten years after Marguerite’s death.

In it we have a model for questioning the dominant ideologies and conventions of our day during a period of quarantine, and not only questioning those individually but also entering into ideological exchange as our current Zoom meetings and other social forums allow us to do. Not only did this proto-feministic text provide us with an eyewitness account into the social, religious, and sexual politics of 16th-century France, it also allows us to question how much or, sadly, how little we’ve progressed as a Western society over the past five hundred years.

English translations of the Heptaméron are available on Project Gutenberg and Wikisource, and I hope you’ll take the time to familiarize yourself with some its tales and arguments during this period of isolation. Thank you.

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